Sunday, September 8, 2013

Gap Analysis: Criminal Law

The Guardian published a story this morning entitled "The wealthy 'make mistakes', the poor go to jail." Its the story about a former Wall Street banker who left his Wall Street job to start a photo project documenting the lives of addicts in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, New York City's poorest neighborhood. While his Wall Street colleagues borrowed and lost others' money and walked away with $300,000 bonuses and government bailouts, a New York City prostitute finds herself going between the streets and jail for having sold her body for $50. The writer explains what he has learned from knowing both the Wall Street banker and the prostitute: "When you're wealthy you make mistakes. When you are poor you go to jail." He further explains:

[...] it is like comparing apples and oranges. That is the point though. We have built two very different societies with two very different sets of values. Takeesha was born into a world with limited opportunities, one where the black market has filled the void. In her world transgressions are resolved via violence, not lawyers. The law as applied to her is simple and stark, with little wiggle room.

Mr one-glove was born into a world with many options. The laws of his land are open for interpretation, and with the right lawyer one can navigate in the vast grey area and never do anything wrong. The rules are often written by and for Mr one-glove and his friends.

There are two points to be made here: First, that there is need for systemic change in how the law treats different classes--whether that be more strictly enforcing the law against professionals, providing more wiggle room for the poor, or meeting the two classes halfway. Second, my guess is that the Wall Street bankers had the help of an army of very expensive attorneys fighting to help him create that interpretive wiggle room in the law, while the prostitute had little to no substantial legal assistance--at most, an overworked public defender.

I still haven't come across any legal startup in the field of criminal law. My guess is that its difficult to find a scaleable solution (since each situation is different), and because it's a scary field for the risk-averse lawyer to enter. After all, the Model Rules for Professional Conduct require that an attorney zealously advocate on behalf of their client. The bar of representation is higher than that for civil cases, making it unlikely that any legal entrepreneur would, for example, offer limited scope or virtual legal services in the field of criminal law. That essentially leaves these folks with the option of hiring expensive legal representation or settling with an overworked, underpaid public defender. (Learn more about the plight of pubic defenders here, here, and here.)

So if you're a legal entrepreneur out there searching for a problem to solve (as if there aren't enough already), this is a field ripe for change.

In the 1800s, Mark Twain joked that “the law is a system that protects everybody who can afford a good lawyer.” Two hundred years later, same story. 

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